The pros and cons of making editorial discussions public

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on July 12, 2014

From The News Desk

Gawker's decision to make some of its internal staff discussions public is making some ripples in the kind of journalistic ponds where such ripples are made.

It's a fun experiment but, as former NSFWCORP subscribers will know, not a new one. We did the exact same thing a couple of years back with "Desknotes," which gave subscribers access to all of NSFWCORP's editorial discussions. The difference being, where Gawker appears to be maintaining a second, totally private channel for more sensitive conversations, we offered read-only access to our actual chat system. We had a checkbox which allowed sensitive posts to be held until they were no longer problematic (most things, except for names and contact information of sources, became public eventually) but, beyond that, readers saw everything our writers saw, when they saw it.

Desknotes continued to exist in one form or another until the end of NSFWCORP. After a while it was re-branded as Scribbles, reflecting the fact that many of the discussions had become blog posts in their own right. That seems to be Gawker's approach too.

There are definite advantages of making editorial discussions public: Transparency, brand identity and -- this being Gawker's main motivation, as it was ours -- a frustration at great "content" only being available to a very small internal audience. I understand editor Max Read's frustration at realizing that he has an army of professional writers who are spending at least some percentage of their day, wasting words, jokes and thoughts that will never be monitized by (in our case) new subscribers or (in his) advertisers. Much like an abattoir owner will find a way to monetize the entire pig, so will a modern editor find the way to blast every last sinew off the writerly carcass.

But, as we also discovered at NSFWCORP, there are also downsides.

Reporters are hardwired to be first to share every tidbit of information they learn. As an editor, you want to be the first person they come to. This is partly because editors are hardwired to want to know everything first, but also because in many cases the information needs further investigation, or has already been reported elsewhere. Having writers able to share story tips in public is a libel suit, or at least major embarrassment, waiting to happen.

A private editorial discussion board adds a second layer of sanity checking: On many occasions, a Pando reporter has mentioned a tip on our internal discussion system only to have a colleague point out a reason why the story isn't what it seems. Often this still leads to a story, but a better, more rounded one. Other times it avoids us publishing something that would later have turned out to be, at best, old news or, at worse, false.

Gawker appears to be avoiding this by keeping their story discussions private, which leads to a second problem: the only stuff that is made public is the fluff, or the chance for writers to spit out jokes that make them look snarky and smart and funny, but which quickly turn the entire enterprise into a series of... well... Tweets. And if you're going to post Tweets, you might as well put them on Twitter where they're likely to be seen by a far wider audience. Pretty soon, your public discussions end up being nothing more than a string of impenetrable inside jokes, which are only read by the same few dozen people.

Meanwhile, this ability for a writer to get his words and thoughts in front of an audience immediately, without editorial input, or reason to spend time getting that extra quote, or locking down that extra fact, starts to drag down the rest of their output. At NSFWCORP I was constantly conflicted between wanting a writer to bash out a quick Desknote short so that we were first on the record, with the fact that too many of those shorts meant there was very little left to form the spine of an actual story.

Did that matter? Yes, whether we liked it or not, readers took more formal stories -- those with the structure and heft of a news report or feature -- far more seriously than they did Desknotes. More than once, we'd publish a Desknote on something only to see a rival publication take that note and build their own more robust story off the back of it, scooping us on our own tip. To many readers, the rival publication was "first" to "publish" the story. And once that happens, there's far less incentive for our reporters to continue reporting what is now someone else's story.

It's a weird irony that our attempt to be more transparent with readers, and to give them the information as soon as we had it, sometimes ended up preventing, or at least disincentivizing, us from reporting out a story to its conclusion.

None of these downsides was felt immediately at NSFWCORP, and I still believe Desknotes was a positive feature of our reporting more than it was a distraction.

It certainly never hurts to try these things, and I'll continue to watch Gawker's experiment with... whatever emotion correctly accompanies a post like this. But the notion that making editorial discussions public is the next logical step in the evolution of journalism is as flawed as the idea that Gawker is the first to try it out.